Meggy Swann, unloved and largely ignored by her mother who runs an alehouse in rural Elizabethan England, was born crippled and waddles with the aid of sticks, rather than walking. Anyone with a deformity in this time period is considered cursed by the devil and Meggy has been the object of taunting and tormenting in her village. The only love that Meggy has felt has been from her grandmother, now deceased, and her pet goose, Louise, who also suffers from a deformity that prevents her from flying. The abuse that she has suffered has made Meggy ornery, feisty and rather unfriendly, but she has developed a strong sense of right and wrong and is very courageous.
Meggy travels to London to become apprentice to her father, an alchemist, when he sends for her to replace his apprentice, Roger, who is leaving to become an actor. He is disappointed both that she is a girl and that she is crippled, so he ignores her until she is able to make herself useful: washing vessels, scrubbing pots and working the bellows to keep the fire hot, as he attempts to turn other metals into gold.
Meggy experiences much the same kind of taunting and rejection from many Londoners that she experienced in her village. However, for the first time in her life, Meggy meets people who accept her for herself. She develops strong friendships with Roger, her father's former apprentice, members of his acting company, a printer and his family and a cooper and his young son.
When Meggy overhears her father planning to sell arsenic to men who plan to poison the baron, in order to finance his continued search for the alchemy formula, she is frantic to stop the murder and save her father from being accused in the plot. She has to call on all of her courage and her new friendships to try and foil the plan.
In Meggy, Karen Cushman has created another memorable female character in an historical fiction novel. Her writing puts the reader right in London, in the mid-16th century, with its narrow dark streets, cobblestones and smelly gutters. A rich cast of characters populates the book, from those who love Meggy to those who ignore, despise or fear her.